Academia
Nobel Prize winner K. Barry Sharpless. Photo credit: Courtesy, Scripps Research

The U.K.’s Royal Society of Chemistry has awarded its 2022 Sir Derek Barton Gold Medal to K. Barry Sharpless, the W.M. Keck Professor of Chemistry at Scripps Research.

The honor, named for the British Nobel laureate chemist who died in 1998, is awarded every two years in recognition of innovative research in organic chemistry by a chemist who is at least 60 years old.

Sharpless, 81, was cited for his pioneering work in “click chemistry.”

Click chemistry, first described in 2001, is a set of methods for constructing chemical compounds via irreversible, highly efficient reactions between smaller molecules – “click” refers to the LEGO-like ease of fitting these modular elements together.

The click chemistry approach is now a constant in drug development, biological research and other research and industrial settings that use chemistry.

“It is indeed a great honor to receive this award named for my career-long scientific role model and mentor, Sir Derek Barton,” Sharpless said.

Sharpless notes that Barton was an influencer and cheerleader for him from early on.

He initially made his name in chemistry in the 1980s for innovations in asymmetric (“chiral”) catalysis – a particularly challenging approach to molecule-building that has proved very useful, especially in drug development.

Barton specifically encouraged Sharpless to keep looking for such reactions, and the younger chemist was able to make further landmark discoveries in this field.

On the strength of those successes, Sharpless among other honors, was selected by Barton in 1997 to deliver the inaugural Barton lecture at Texas A&M, where Barton finished his career. Ultimately, Sharpless was awarded a share of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his chiral catalysis work.

By the late 1990s, Sharpless was moving in a new direction, and in 2001 he and his Scripps Research colleagues Hartmuth Kolb and M.G. Finn published their initial manifesto on click chemistry and its utility, in the influential journal Angewandte Chemie. 

Sharpless and his laboratory since then have continued to discover click-chemistry reactions, most recently an amine-to-azide reaction published in Nature in 2019.

“From his work creating the first chiral catalysts, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2001, to his development of click chemistry, Barry has had an enormous impact on chemistry throughout his career,” says Scripps President and CEO Peter Schultz, PhD. 

The Barton award includes the gold medal, a gift of £3,000 and a dinner in London.



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Ellen Bullock